THE STORY – Hirayama works as a toilet cleaner in Tokyo. He seems content with his simple life. He follows a structured everyday life and dedicates his free time to his passion for music and books. Hirayama also has a fondness for trees and photographs them. More of his past is gradually revealed through a series of unexpected encounters.
THE CAST – Koji Yakusho, Arisa Nakano & Tokio Emoto
THE TEAM – Wim Wenders (Director/Writer) & Takuma Takasaki (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 123 Minutes
Life is repetitive. As “Everything Everywhere All At Once” poignantly pointed out, life is a never-ending cycle of laundry and taxes. Often, repetition is viewed as a bad thing, indicating we’re stuck in a rut. Our lives have become so monotonous and predictable that it’s difficult to believe things will ever change. Albert Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results.” But as legendary German filmmaker Wim Wenders (“Paris, Texas”) beautifully explores in his latest film, “Perfect Days,” – there’s calm to be found in routine. What one calls “insanity,” the other might call “serenity.” At age 77, Wenders seems to have ruminated on his existence and poured a life’s worth of wisdom into this quietly captivating film. Think of “Perfect Days” as a meditative slow-burn piece of cinema and a free course of therapy. A lesson in learning to value what we have and appreciate what makes life worth living. You may walk away from this film feeling lighter and with a new sense of gratitude.
“Perfect Days” is a prime example of a film that’s all at once is seemingly about everything and nothing. It tells the story of a humble middle-aged man called Hirayama (Cannes Best Actor winner Koji Yakusho) who lives a simple existence in modern-day Tokyo. He resides in a plebeian flat with only the bare essentials; foldaway bedding, books, and dozens of plants. Every day he is awoken not by an alarm clock but by the sound of a neighbor’s sweeping leaves on their stoop. He gets up, brushes his teeth, trims his mustache, tends to his pants, puts on his overalls, and heads out the door to start his day of work as a public toilet cleaner. It’s an occupation many may look down upon (even by some of his own relatives), but Hirayama tends to it with dignity and attentiveness. By all accounts, Hirayama’s life is nothing glamorous or particularly exciting, but in a world dominated by materialism, excess, and options, he’s gratefully content with his minimal lifestyle. He’s at peace.
In a time when many of us are caught up in a flurry of overwhelming chaos, watching “Perfect Days” has the power to provide a momentary sense of relief. It’s the kind of delicate film that has the ability to help one recalibrate and find their center again. While some might find it repetitious and dull, there’s something very soothing and life-affirming about watching an unassuming and completely ordinary individual finding joy in the little things. Every day Hirayama leaves his home and looks up to the sky to take it all in. He stops to smell the roses or, in his case, find little sprouting shrubs he can take home and nurture in his cultivated garden. He uses his morning commutes to listen to his favorite music, an eclectic mix of mostly 60’s artists such as The Animals, Rolling Stones, Otis, and, of course, Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day,” where the film gets its title. But “Perfect Days” is more than just a commentary on the circular nature of life. There are disruptions to Hirayama’s status quo, such as the arrival of his niece Niko (Arisa Nakano), who comes to visit him. It’s in these scenes we get crumbs of Hirayama’s past, upbringing, and relationship with his relatives. These minor revelations add clarity as to why he’s adopted this Monk-like way of life.
Legendary Japanese actor Koji Yakusho is utterly sublime as Hirayama. He’s a man of few words but nonetheless contains a magnetic screen presence. It’s not a showy performance. Quite the contrary; it’s an understated turn that says so much, with him saying very little. Try not to light up with glee as he discusses music with Niko. While it’s unlikely his subdued Cannes award-winning turn will be honored with a nomination at the Academy Awards, it’s the kind of late-career blossoming role that will keep him in the conversation and hopefully introduce him to more North American audiences.
Some may say Wenders is playing it safe with the simplicity of a film like this, but far from it. Each day in Hirayama’s life is stitched together with a fractured black-and-white dream sequence. These scenes play out like oil and water swirling around in a lava lamp, forming abstract shapes and memories of the day gone by but never forming a complete picture. It’s an inspired conceptual look at how the mind documents our experiences. The writing is also full of whimsy and spiritual ideas. As characters flit into Hirayama’s orbit, such a divorced man postulates whether shadows get darker when they overlap. It’s the kind of existential philosophy we ponder when high or drunk but delivered with absolute sincerity. Hirayama also discusses a patch of land covered by a tarp with one of his neighbors. “What used to be here?” he asks. To which the neighbor laments, “That’s what getting old truly is.”
“Perfect Days” is also a gorgeously shot film. Cinematographer Franz Lustig takes advantage of the magic hour sun to light the movie with a gentle warmth that feels emblematic of our protagonist’s positive outlook. You can feel the detached bliss Hirayama experiences as he rides his bike in the evening. The confined 4:3 aspect ratio captures the sprawling Tokyo landscape, but it forces you to focus more intently on its central character. The film cleverly opens and closes on the same shot of the Tokyo landscape being kissed by the morning sunrise – highlighting the repetition of life. In a moment of pure bittersweet catharsis, we watch Hirayama begin his day as the sun beams down on his face on his drive to work. Nina Simone’s soulful “Feeling Good” is blasting on the cassette deck, and in a glorious one-take, we see our protagonist’s face melt between joy and bittersweet melancholy.
Easily Wim Wenders’ best narrative feature film in many, many years, “Perfect Days” is a profoundly simple tale of finding peace, meaning, and beauty within the mundanity of day-to-day life. Yakusho’s zen performance is impossible to resist. It is a gentle, reflective piece from Wenders and a true gem of 2023.